So he played a big role in getting a nation hooked on cigarettes. So he was the richest man in the state of North Carolina. So he was the sort of fat cat businessman from whom I tend to initially withhold respect — based on my automatic assumption that they had to crush a lot of butts on their way to the top of whatever heap they are on.
I wanted to hate him — for being the father of my addiction, for the fact that I can’t finish this blog entry without taking a break for one of his products — but, after a little research, I think I almost like R.J. Reynolds, and, even more, the estate he left behind.
Ace and I hang out there at least once a week — roaming the 130 acres that were part of his 1,000-plus acre country home, known as Reynolda.
But what we like best are the hiking trails that take you through thick woods and open meadows, rich with wildflowers and wildlife, past beds of pine needles and vines of honeysuckle so pungently sweet they penetrate even a smoker’s jaundiced nostrils.
I got my start in cigarettes at, probably, age 16, pilfering Salems from my mother. Then I moved on to unfiltered Pall Malls — also a R.J. Reynolds brand, and also pilfered, in this case from a neighbor.
I remember my mother used to put her Salems in little ceramic holders. The little cups with a dozen or so cigarettes in them could be found around the house, serving almost as decorations. She didn’t smoke them that often, and when she did, she didn’t inhale.
I did — first her throat-searing menthols, then the neighbor’s filterless Pall Malls, before working my way up to Marlboros; those, after all, were perceived as the most manly, and didn’t leave you spitting out little pieces of tobacco.
Like most smokers, I ponder quitting at least weekly, most recently last week as I walked the trails of Reynolda, past a vine of honeysuckle that was leaning out into the path, the tiny tendrils of its blossom waving in the wind, like beckoning index fingers.
If only I could be hooked on honeysuckle, I thought. If only its sweet essence could be inhaled. Then I realized that’s exactly what I was doing. As I wondered if honeysuckle might be my salvation, I realized, if somebody studied it enough, honeysuckle could turn out to be bad for us too (though I don’t see how something with “honey” and “suckle” in its name possibly could).
Then too — even if honeysuckle did satiate that urge, and even if I harvested my own and came up with a smokeless way to imbibe it — it would still lack that ease of use that plays such a big role in getting us hooked.
It was R.J. Reynolds who made smoking so convenient.
Reynold was born in Virginia to a tobacco-growing, slave-owning family. He attended two colleges, one of them in Baltimore, and went to work for his father before striking out on his own.
In 1874, he moved to what’s now Winston-Salem to start his own tobacco company. He started his own tobacco company in what was then Winston. There were 15 other tobacco companies in town, but his outgrew them all.
Reynolds was an astute businessman and a hard worker, and he quickly became a wealthy man. He married a woman 30 years his junior, his former secretary Mary Katherine Smith, who, historical accounts suggest, helped bring out his progressive and philanthropic sides.
She successfully urged him to shorten the work hours of employees, pay them more and provide them with meals, schools and nursery services.
When he built what would become Reynolda House, he also had a village constructed nearby where workers could live. It’s now called Reynolda Village, a collection of restaurants and shops. Also on the grounds, golf being his passion, he commissioned a 9-hole golf course, which now serves as the grassy meadow where Ace likes to romp, or just rest.
He also granted endowments to Guilford College, the Oxford Orphan Asylum, and the Baptist Orphanage, in addition to a lot of other charities and churches in the Winston-Salem community. He became the first southern man to establish a hospital serving African-Americans. He donated as well to establish the Slater Industrial School, which became Winston-Salem State University.
R.J. didn’t get to enjoy Reynolda House too long. He died the year after it was completed.
His daughter, Mary Reynolds Babcock, would donate it for use as an art museum, and the Reynolds’ philanthropic ways would continue. About 300 acres of the Reynolda estate was donated to Wake Forest University, which moved from the town of Wake Forest to Winston-Salem in 1956.
Today, the Reynolds family name is stamped on much of Winston-Salem, including the library at Wake Forest, the airport, a high school, a park and an auditorium, and the various components that make up Reynolda — Reynolda House, Reynolda Village, Reynolda Gardens.
(Having recently returned to my ancestral homeplace in Winston-Salem, moving into the modest apartment in which my parents lived when I was born, I thought about naming it and its adjoining patch of grass after me. But I’m only renting, and Woestendieka doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like Reynolda.)
My honeysuckle encounter, and the hours I’ve spent slow-walking with Ace around Reynolda, have got me thinking I need to do more walking and less smoking, more pursuing of health and less feeding of urges. They’ve gotten me thinking too about how times change, and how things we were told were OK turn out not to be — like slavery and smoking, which, not to diminish the massive evil of the former, have much in common.
I don’t blame R.J. Reynolds for inflicting the scourge of cigarettes on society. He was a product of his times, peddling a product of his times, and pouring some of the profits back into his community. Far more devious, I think, were the subsequent generations of tobacco pitchmen and the marketing techniques they used, aimed as they were at young people (Camels) and women (Virginia Slims and Eve).
Light up — if you want to be cool, if you want to be sexy, if you want to be liberated, or if you merely want to be a rugged Marlboro man.
Most of us — though it took decades — wised up and saw through that. Smoking is bad, and bad for you — always has been, always will be.
At least, maybe, until they come out with All Natural Smokeless Honeysuckle 100’s, which would have the added benefit of leaving you smelling sweet.
Then, and only then, will we have come a long way, baby.
(For more about visiting Reynolda with your dog, see our next entry.)